Getting More Immersed with Indiewire

  The Penske Media purchase of Indiewire has resulted in an expansion of my role as crafts and awards season contributor.  Beginning this week, I begin Emmy coverage of below-the-line contenders along with my usual Oscar season crafts reporting, working closely

Immersed in Blu-ray: Hitchcock and Bogart

The WB Archive Collection gets Hitch and Bogie on Blu-ray and they've never looked better for home viewing. In Kent Jones' indispensable doc, Hitchcock/Truffaut, he reminds us that Truffaut was on a mission to correct misconceptions about Hitch as a lightweight

Immersed in Books: Farber on Film

For the first time, the complete writings of film critic Manny Farber is available from Library of America, edited by Robert Polito (Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson). Manny Farber (1917-2008) was the first modernist film critic to write like a modernist.


Not So Anonymous VFX

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Animation, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Now that the Academy has expanded the VFX category to five nominees, it gives movies with more supporting work a better chance to compete. This is perfect for Uncharted Territory’s superb virtual recreation of Elizabethan London for Roland Emmerich’s provocative Shakespeare authorship drama, Anonymous.

One of the first prestigious movies to be shot digitally with the new Alexa at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert (who also served as exec producers in a more creative capacity) built the entire city of London in the computer, relying on accurate maps prior to the Great Fire of 1666.

They constructed tens of thousands of buildings (which were very crooked by design) in a system they created called OGEL (LEGO spelled backwards). They utilized three types: half-timbered, stone, and mansions along with one-offs such as The Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. They made basic variations (one floor, two floors with different roof types) and LEGO’d them together.

The OGEL software was customized in-house primarily because of the nature of the crooked design, which was also part of its charm, according to Weigert. They worked regularly in 3ds Max with both hand and automated work. They wanted to adhere to the map and accurately depict what London supposedly looked like.

“We wanted to use visual effects to create history as it was, so we built the White Hall Palace, for instance, which was Queen Elizabeth’s home,” Weigert explains. “It doesn’t exist anymore and is in a totally different place and looks totally different. But we built it accurate to old paintings.”

Ironically, the original White Hall was more of a red brick palace. “The interesting thing about the old one was that it had actually been built over a long period of time, and they kept adding to it, so there are at least two or three different styles on the outside,” adds Engel.

What’s especially new in Anonymous are the wide panoramas of London across the Thames. “We had several sweeping helicopter or ‘balloon’ shots that show sweeping vistas,” Weigert continues. ” There was a lot of detail in these vistas, not only thousands of people arriving at the Globe, but also row boats, ships on the Thames that have sail animation blowing in the wind, cats on roofs, birds and chickens, and cows in the street, even laundry blowing in the wind.”

This required a lot of R&D for new projection mapping techniques and moving the assets around in the compositing realm, allowing for quicker turnaround, using projection techniques in Fusion. Engel and Weigert thus worked with eyeon to develop new tools, including full 3D water as a compositing package inside Fusion, which helped create the River Thames.

Hey Jude on Cars 2

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Home Entertainment, Oscar, VFX | Leave a comment

Jude Brownbill and Holley Shiftwell were made for each other. They’re both young, British, female, and relatively new to their professions. Brownbill joined Pixar straight out of the Animation Mentor online program, and immediately got her hands on Holley, the newbie spy in the Oscar-contending Cars 2. The sequel to the popular Cars, directed by John Lasseter is currently out on Blu-ray from Disney Home Ent.

“They hadn’t really animated Holley that much,” Brownbill recalls, “and they got this big sequence when she’s outside the Tokyo bathrooms and about to meet the American agent for the first time. And then this whole miscommunication occurs, so Shawn [Krause] and Dave [Mullins], the animation supervisors, gave me that whole sequence to do, and it was my first ever on a feature film. The first shot briefing John actually recorded on his iPad because he was so busy with the other departments. And so I was listening to him describing how Holley was feeling; how nervous she was and wanted to prove herself.”

Brownbill quickly seized on Mortimer’s mannerisms from the recording sessions. For example, she would nod or shake her head before she spoke. “She’s so ahead of the game that she knows what to say before even saying it,” Brownbill continues. “I tried to get Holley to be like that. And there was this nervous energy to her — always blinking. And afterward, people would come to me for advice about her mouth shape. I couldn’t believe that! This was my first film!”

“Statistically, there just aren’t that many women in animation,” notes Victor Navone, an AM mentor and co-director of Cars 2. “Our department at Pixar is about 10% female. I’m not really sure why that is, but it’s really exciting for us to come across another woman who’s a really good animator and brings that female point of view to the animation world.”

If there was anything that Brownbill struggled with at first, it was technically mastering Pixar’s proprietary software. A Maya user from her previous stint at Blue-Zoo in London, Brownbill was glad there were only six controls and could ease into it. “It was really good to get the essence of it with just a head or a tire jilt,” she adds.

As fate would have it, Brownbill is now animating another English female: Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in Brave (June 22, 2012). It marks Pixar’s first stab at a fantasy/adventure with a fiery Scottish princess as the protagonist.

“When I first got my Brave character, she had a spine and legs and her eyebrows and eyelids were separate,” she recalls. “It’s really fun because I’m animating a British character — a very regal one. It’s a huge step up in complexity, but you just have to treat it the same. Do your video reference and try to find a bit of real life that you can put into it, and the mannerisms, really knowing the character and who she is, and trying to figure out a way she’d react to something.”

Krill Vision of Happy Feet Two

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

Director George Miller had some unfinished business in returning to the Antarctic for Happy Feet Two (opening Friday), including a couple of wisecracking new sidekicks to take it in an absurd new direction and to underscore the emotion. That’s right: Will & Bill, the bottom-feeding Krills (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), invariably steal the show with their hilarious Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-like antics.

“One of the enticing things about doing an animated sequel would be to try those things that you weren’t quite able to do in the first movie,” admits Miller. “First of all, we had rendered three of the scenes from the first Happy Feet in stereo 3-D and they looked absolutely wonderful, given the spectacular landscape and the creatures themselves. They become more three-dimensional and tactile themselves. You can reach out and touch the fluffy penguins, but we didn’t have the bandwidth and the time to get the 3-D done, and it wasn’t as sophisticated as we were able to achieve on the second Happy Feet.

“Secondly, just the rendering of landscapes and characters and most of all, just story structure. I feel that even though this film only covers three or four days, it’s a denser story and has better rhythms. Virtually both Happy Feet movies are grounded in some authenticity about the natural history of Antarctica: the behavior of the penguins and the elephant seals, the leopard seals, the school of birds, the ice and the clouds, and the sun, and so on. All of those things we try to keep consistent. Obviously our lead characters try to differentiate themselves and are heightened in their behavior and look.

“But, having done that, I didn’t want the film to just get bigger and better in scale, so the thought was to go down into a micro world, and, from the point of view of two almost microscopic Krill, the world looks epic. And I became fascinated by the Krill: these great biomasses of which there are billions and billions of them moving around on the large currents on the bottom of the food chain. And, like the penguins, they’re amazing creatures to animate.”

To take on the more ambitious demands of Happy Feet Two, Miller started a new animated facility in Sydney, Australia, Dr. D Studio. “Essentially, we wanted to create a pipeline that was story-driven,” he adds. “We worked with the very fine Animal Logic in Sydney, but they were an effects [company] and even though they look the same, they’re quite different animals, as it were. In other words, if you’re selling effects to several different movies and commercials, you can’t customize the pipeline to the specific story and we really wanted to get into a much more dynamic lighting in terms of the movement of clouds and the light; we wanted much more detail; we wanted to go into that micro world; we wanted, if you like, to push the photoreality even more; and I view these big dance sequences as big action sequences, so I wanted the flexibility to lens them more dynamically as well.”

Enter Rob Coleman, formerly with ILM (the Star Wars prequels), who oversaw the work as animation director. Sure, there were a lot of improvements to the penguins in terms facial animation and movement and overall performance. But, funnily enough, it was the Will & Bill that attracted him to Happy Feet Two.

“When I came down here and George pitched me the movie and started going through the Krill story, I said I’ve gotta do this movie,” he confirms. “And while most of the other part of this script evolved quite considerably over the last two years, the Krills virtually remained untouched. They had already written their lines. What Brad and Matt brought to it was a whole level of humor in terms of their vocal performances and how they riffed off of each other.

“It was amazing to watch those two guys working together. But when Matt especially became Bill, and there was this extra longing to be with Will, and his desire to have a family, it just made that more funny. And Brad’s independence in no longer wanting to be part of the swarm.”

Along with improving the penguin facial animation and overall performance (the entire rigs were redone from Softimage to Maya), Will & Bill were also pretty daunting with their expressive bug eyes, feelers, 10 dainty legs, and semi-transparent, bioluminescent bodies. We’ll just have to see if Oscar lightning strikes twice.

Universal Buys Mac Guff for Illumination

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Books, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

The Blue Sky model is complete for Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Despicable Me). with Universal Pictures’ purchase of the Paris-based Mac Guff Ligne animation studio. Deadline reports that the studio will be renamed Illumination Mac Guff, and that the animators will now work full-time on Illumination projects (the VFX business will stay separate). Universal has also taken a long term lease on the the 35,000 square foot animation facility (housed above an Aston Martin dealership near the Eiffel Tower). Mac Guff president Jacques Bled and Illumination exec Janet Healy will serve as co-presidents of Illumination Mac Guff.

“In acquiring an animation studio located half way around the world, we are evolving our filmmaking model; one that is creating entertainment despite borders, boundaries and languages,” Meledandri said in a prepared statement.

The situation is similar to George Miller starting his own Dr. D Studios in Sydney to make Happy Feet 2 instead of continuing the collaboration with Animal Logic, which animated the Oscar-winning Happy Feet. Miller told me that it was much more efficient to have an animation start up that could handle the more expansive pipeline demands for animated features rather than a VFX facility that does animation part-time.

Likewise, this will enable Mac Guff to grow into a full-time animation facility that can better handle the artistic and technical demands of cutting edge animated features while still pulling off hybrids such as Hop as well.

Illumination has The Lorax (March 2, 2012), a Despicable Me sequel, a stop-motion Addams Family feature with Tim Burton, a Ricky Gervais-adapted Flanimals, and Uglydoll.

Oscar Potential for Potter Finale

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Home Entertainment, Oscar, Production Design, VFX, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Just as the Oscar race starts heating up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 came out on Blu-ray last week (Warner Home Video), bolstered by a compelling FYC trailer (see below). As expected, the exciting and sublime finale looks and sounds spectacular in the home theater. Director David Yates wanted to end on a stirring operatic flourish in 3-D and he succeeded. The question now becomes: What are the Oscar chances for the most successful film franchise?

Well, as I’ve already commented for TOH, Part 2 is a definite contender for VFX (supervised overall by Tim Burke). It’s the culmination of superlative work that put the London industry in Soho on the global stage, and is worthy of the highest honor. From the first-time CG Hogwarts by Double Negative (demonstrated nicely in the Blu-ray’s “Blowing Up Hogwarts” in Maximum Movie Mode) to the thrilling Gringotts break in and escape on a sullen dragon (also Dneg), to the Room of Requirements escapade with fire creatures (MPC), to the Hogwarts battle (Dneg and MPC), to the ethereal encounter with Dumbledore (Framestore), and the final confrontation with Voldemort (MPC).

“Environments, especially, have been a breakthrough, says Burke.” It’s all HDRI, and that way of photographing textures has given us incredibly detailed shots and the ability to relight things. It’s all based on the proprietary tools to stitch this stuff together and make it work.”

The biggest achievement, in fact, was Hogwarts, which was computer-generated for the first time both for budgetary and artistic reasons. “Basically, we were able to design and execute shots right up to final delivery,” Burke adds. “It gave us a lot of flexibility. We were able to render things quickly without fussing around. It seems to me that we can turn around iterations so much quicker than ever before.”

Since the ongoing war takes place at Hogwarts throughout the second-half of Part 2, it was essential that the battleground display sufficient detail and dynamic compositions, particularly since the final film is the first in 3-D.

“David wanted to create these fantastic, big shots that link different parts of the action in different areas, going from outside the school to inside the school,” Burke continues. “And all of the development that we’ve done and the extra high-resolution that we’ve corrected for have allowed us to fly around [immersively] during critical moments of the battle, and has made the whole experience very visceral.”

Aside from VFX, though, there’s plenty of other below-the-line Oscar potential, including sound mixing and effects. But Stuart Craig’s production design has progressed brilliantly throughout the franchise. Indeed, the eccentric retro wizard world has been a continuing character: Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Gringotts. Plus the safe haven of the Weasley home, the Burrow, and, toward the end, the heavenly visit with Dumbledore at King’s Cross Station with white mist (also Framestore).

Finally, Alan Rickman’s mournful performance as Snape is a revelation along with Daniel Radcliffe’s ascension into manhood. Aren’t they Oscar worthy? And while Best Picture seems a long shot, we’ll have to wait and see how the nominations turn out.

J. Edgar and Rosebud

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Events, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX | Leave a comment

Friday night’s LACMA screening/Q&A of J. Edgar hit home the Citizen Kane analogy for Clint Eastwood’s biopic. The absolute corruptibility of power; the yearning for a love unfulfilled; and sublimating those urges to wield power. In this case, J. Edgar blackmailed the powerful through their sexual indiscretions (Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Martin Luther King) to make up for his inability to express his own sexuality.

Arguably the most powerful figure of the 20th century, J. Edgar shrewdly set up the FBI and created his own law enforcement empire for nearly half a century, pioneering the science of forensics, cunningly promoting his image, and manipulating the media. In this regard, the snapshot of the Warner Bros. gangster film and its shifting emphasis from Jimmy Cagney’s gangster in Public Enemy (1931) to his lawman in G Men (1935) is fascinating and pure Eastwood.

Yet it’s the tender love story between Leonardo DiCaprio’s oppressive J. Edgar and Armie Hammer’s loyal lieutenant/partner Tolson that transforms the movie. Ironically, this could well be Eastwood’s most beautiful love story. During the Q&A, the celebrated director said he was attracted to the notion of exploring the secret behind the myth. I asked him afterward at the reception if he saw any connection between Hoover and Dirty Harry as law enforcement officers driven over the edge, and he just smiled and said that Dirty Harry came out at a time when attention was paid to victim’s rights.

For screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), “it’s a cautionary tale” tied to our post 9/11 fear of terror. As for the notorious cross-dressing scene, he said it was crucial to find an emotional hook: Hoover’s mother. Eastwood said he’s particularly proud of the way it was handled: “It’s his way of bringing himself closer to his mother [during such a vulnerable moment].”

I asked Hammer which was more challenging, the brutal lover’s quarrel fight in a hotel suite or the quiet moment of emotional reckoning at the end? He responded that it was the latter because of the emotional complexity and the physical limitations of the makeup and his character’s stroke. Fortunately, it was the last scene that they shot.

Both Hammer and DiCaprio rejoiced in the famed Eastwood method of no rehearsals and one or two takes. DiCaprio even wondered if maybe Eastwood did more takes than usual since they often did four or five. I asked Eastwood if he altered his method and he replied, “No, I always do a few takes but make sure I get lots of coverage.” Why no rehearsal? “I want to see the moment of discovery in their eyes and get the actors to trust their instincts, and I want to get it on film.”

18 Animated Features Submitted for Oscar Race

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Events, Movies, Oscar, performance capture, Tech, Virtual Production | Leave a comment

Here are the 18 animated features submitted for consideration in the Oscar race for the 84th Academy Awards. They will now be evaluated and short listed by the animation committee, which will lead to five eventual nominees if 16 qualify or four if at least 12 qualify. And, yes, in the end I think The Adventures of Tintin will qualify because it meets the qualifications of frame by frame animation despite the performance capture. Same should apply to Mars Needs Moms.

The Adventures of Tintin
Alois Nebel
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
Arthur Christmas
Cars 2
A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Gnomeo & Juliet
Happy Feet Two
Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil
Kung Fu Panda 2
Mars Needs Moms
Puss in Boots
The Smurfs
Winnie the Pooh

Lasseter Gets a Hollywood Star

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Blu-ray, Events, Home Entertainment, Movies, Oscar, Shorts, Tech, VFX | Leave a comment

John Lasseter got a long-overdue Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yesterday right in front of the El Capitan Theater, surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues, including Disney’s Rich Ross and Sean Bailey, Pixar’s Ed Catmull, Jim Morris, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, composer Randy Newman, and Owen Wilson, Bonnie Franklin, Patton Oswalt, John Ratzenberger and Don Rickles.

The stars were aligned just right, with the release of Cars 2 on Blu-ray/DVD and 2012 marking the 25th anniversary of Pixar. Indeed, in a tearful acceptance, Lasseter praised Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs, who passed away three weeks ago: “Today I share this star with Steve Jobs; without him Pixar and all these amazing films would not exist.”

I’ve had the honor of interviewing Lasseter on several occasions throughout the last 10 years, and his most revealing observation concerned mentor Catmull: “Lucasfilm had the cream of the crop in computer graphics research, and I asked Ed how they did it. He said, ‘I always hire people smarter than myself.’ I was inspired by that philosophy.”

Meanwhile, Catmull told me years ago that the Pixar epiphany came with their first Oscar-winning short, Tin Toy: “When the baby walked up to the couch and the toys cowered underneath, we realized that the adults laughed and the kids didn’t,” he said. “And when the baby fell over, the kids laughed and the adults didn’t. That taught us how to achieve the physical layer for children and the cerebral layer for adults.”

And Pixar has never looked back.

Animated Oscar Feature Entries Due Nov. 1

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Entry forms and supporting materials to qualify for the 84th Academy Awards’ Animated Feature category must be submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by 5:00 p.m. PT on Nov. 1. The deadline to submit accompanying film prints is Nov. 11. Thanks to a new policy, a maximum of four films can now be nominated if 13-15 qualify. In the past, anything under 16 qualifiers meant three Oscar nominees. So expect either four or five nominees this Oscar season. So far, Rango‘s the front-runner, but it’s the most wide-open field in years, with The Adventures of Tintin, Cars 2, Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio, Happy Feet 2, and Winnie the Pooh all vying for slots. Plus there are the late season indie entries Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris.

Complete 84th Academy Awards rules are available at Additional information may be obtained by contacting Meredith Shea by phone at (310) 247-3000, ext. 1190, by fax at (310) 247-2600, or by e-mail at

The 84th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live Jan. 24, 2012, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

The Academy Awards will be presented Feb. 26, 2012, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center, and televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 200 countries worldwide.

Puss in Boots Sheds Shrek Image

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Puss in Boots continues the DreamWorks momentum that began with Kung Fu Panda and continued through How to Train Your Dragon: it’s witty, ironic, unpredictable, beautifully designed, and heart-felt. Best of all, this origin story about Puss redeeming his past and forging a legend works as a standalone distinct from the Shrek universe from which it sprang. The DreamWorks animators have created a rich, naturalistic world that recalls Leone, The Mask of Zorro, and a surreal fairy land that’s literally up in the clouds, and director Chris Miller has pulled it all together with verve and fun. (You can read all about the design challenges for the characters and environments along with the new procedural animation for clouds and the beanstalk in Ramin Zahed’s superb The Art of Puss in Boots, Insight Editions.)

Credit exec producer Guillermo Del Torro for his outside the box influence and live action ethos (from suggestions about cutting to recommending that Humpty Dumpty be a da Vinci-like inventor). Speaking of Humpty, his wily character is a refreshing surprise that adds balance and pathos to Puss’ coming of age tale. The end of the year is shaping up nicely for animation and Puss in Boots is a definite Oscar contender.